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Thursday, April 23, 2015

Renaissance Cities--Barcelona

Barcelona's Gothic Quarter, the old central city, about
as close to the Renaissance as possible today.
By the time you read this, my wife and I will be on board the Allure of the Seas on our way to Barcelona, Spain. We've been there before, in 2001, but mostly what we saw was through a bus window from the airport to the seaport where we boarded the Grandeur of the Seas for a seaborne romp around the western Mediterranean. We had hoped to see at least a little of the city when our ship returned. We had some time to kill before our plane left in the afternoon. However, when it came time to commence our abbreviated tour I couldn't find an English speaking taxi driver, nor did I have enough Spanish currency (in the days before the Euro) to afford one in any case. So, we took a bus provided by the cruise line to the airport and sat around for something like five hours before boarding our plane. It was, to say the least, hardly what you'd call a visit to Barcelona. This year, I'd like to spend a couple days there before taking the high-speed train north to Paris.
An artist's rendering of Barcelona in Roman times. The Mons Taber is in the background.

The Barcelona Cathedral.
There is lots to see in Barcelona, it's a very, VERY old city, dating back to the pre-Roman, Carthaginian days around 300 BC. The Romans planted a military outpost there about 15 BC, laying out a typical, walled grid of streets, the "city" fed by two aqueducts from the mountains to the west. The place had a good harbor, lots of flat land, and in emergencies, an easily defended hill they called Mons Taber. There are still a few remaining vestiges of the old Roman wall if you know where to look. Mostly though, in visiting Barcelona today, tourist center their interest on the Spanish architect, Antoni Gaudi, and his vision of the Sagrada Familia (Sacred Family) church as well as his apartment complex most often referred to at Casa Mila. Both are in the Art Nouveau style of the early 20th-century. The church (begun in 1882) is still under construction, expected to be completed in 2026. Just to avoid confusion, Gaudi's church is not the Barcelona Cathedral (right). It dates from the 13th, 14th, and 15th centuries. Its ancient-looking fa├žade actually not all that ancient. It was completed in 1913. You'd think they'd want to finish one church before they started another one.
The Aragon Empire (in blue) during the 15th century.
A street in the Gothic Quarter.
Barcelona during Renaissance times (similar to the street scene at left) was a city in decline. For centuries, though good times and bad, invasions, sackings, and other important happenings, had been the capital of the Catalonian area of Spain called Castile. The Castile empire stretched as far east as Athens, Greece, while also including Naples, most of Italy, Sicily, and all the dry land in between. That all changed in 1469. Isabel of Castile (central Spain) married Ferdinand II of Aragon (the area surrounding Barcelona), forming the roots of the present-day Spanish royal family tree (King Juan Carlos). The capital of Spain became Madrid. Together the couple drove out the last of the Moorish invaders (Muslims), financed Christopher Columbus (below), raised five kids, and the rest, as they say, is history. (Their youngest daughter, Catalina of Aragon, became the first wife of England's Henry VIII thus becoming Queen Catherine of England and the mother of Mary I, Queen of Scots--it's a long story.)

The Return of Christopher Columbus; His Audience
before King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella by Eugene Delacroix
Ferdinand II of Aragon, ca. 1515
Isabel of Castile, 1519
Among Barcelona's many events of historic proportions was the establishment in 1401 of the Bank of Barcelona, the first public bank in Europe. (Venice and Genoa followed suit shortly thereafter.) Also, the first European meter as a unit of measurement originated in Barcelona in 1794. A world's fair in 1888 brought worldwide prestige to the city. On the negative side, the years 1650-54 brought Bubonic Plague to the city, reducing the population by as much as a half. During the 19th century, Napoleon was not kind to Barcelona, nor was Generalissimo Franco, the Spanish communists, and various anarchist groups which ruled the city during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). However Barcelona began to prosper during the mid-20th-century through industrialization and tourism, aided by the Olympic Games in 1992. Today, the city is once more growing, despite the general problems of the European economy, boasting an estimated population of 1.6-million. In a few days, my wife and I will be boosting that number a little.

Antoni Gaudi's La Sagrada Familia, 2014.
Neo-Gothic it's not.


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